Dan Cain lay in bed with his eyes shut, but for all his assumption of the positions, going through the motions, the imitation of sleep, which by all technicalities and textbooks should have induced it, he remained unable to sleep.
Turning onto his back with an impatient huff solely for himself and moving his arm over the sheets, under the pillow, behind his head, the covers cool in the autumn night and weighing heavy on him, he lied to himself and pretended it was the moonlight streaming through his bedroom window and not his concern for Meg Halsey’s cold front that afternoon that was keeping him awake. Or maybe his covers were too heavy, he was overheating; but he’d thrown them off earlier and found himself too cold.
So definitely the moonlight, you know, and not Meg and not that he hadn’t seen West in days, not since he’d moved in, even though the light was always on in his room, and definitely the moonlight and not where was Rufus? The cat had been missing for maybe a day, not that Dan had really noticed, you know; and anyway he had probably found one of the neighborhood moggies on heat and strutted off to cry on someone’s fence and fight other toms. And think, man! What a terrible night’s sleep he’d be getting if the cat was here, jumping on Dan’s bed in the dead of night and sitting on his chest with his paws pulled up under him, purring loudly and staring into his face and drooling. I mean, what a pain in the ass! So it was good that he was out salivating over pussies and not Dan, and Dan might get a good night’s sleep on his one night off, if it wasn’t for Megan - uh, the moonlight, obviously.
Reluctantly, Dan sat up and dragged himself from bed, crossing to the window and jerking the curtains closed. He should have closed them earlier when Meg was around but for some reason always neglected to; his memory was daubed with images of Megan’s fair and beautiful skin dappled in the afternoon sun, her white blonde hair like gold, her skin flushed, her blue eyes lit, aglow, with supernatural beauty in the sunlight. His fantasy was quickly dashed, however, by a thought to Professor Hill’s recent lectures on the location of the subconscious in the neocortex, how it was wound up with language in the cerebellum, but likewise, in the amygdala with desire. And then West, sitting too close to him as if he were keeping watch on Dan or somehow flanking him, the words forced between his teeth with rabid excitement like a stoat on a rabbit: But, Dr Hill, is not emotion a function of the brain as a whole and experienced often cognitively, even triggered by the cognitive, Dr Hill? Is it not a function of our social obligation - Shott 1979 - is it not, in fact, the topmost level of our functioning, circa Sperry 1965? So to state it is subconscious --
Mr West , I do not recall inviting questions…!
And then the slow, aggressive splinter and snap of another 2B in Herbert’s hands. Dan wondered where he got the money for all those pencils. You wouldn’t catch Dan squandering his loan on cheap wood and graphite, but then he had Trojans to spend his petty cash on, an expense Herbert certainly didn’t seem concerned with.
Is it not the topmost level of our functioning? Dan stared out the window through the gap in the curtains. Sperry 1965. That was… observations on visual perception after disconnexion of the cerebral hemispheres in man. Wasn’t it? Dan was no fool but the technical brilliance of West’s observations in class outstripped him by a mile. Perhaps it was as his abstinence teacher in high school had remarked: sex made you dumb. Well, fine, it didn’t matter. Any mental decline Dan was suffering had to be better than whatever was going on in West’s subconscious, anyway.
Herbert. Dan wondered briefly if he should try referring to him a little more casually, you know, since they were housemates and all. Herbert - damn, it sounded so strange - did call him Dan after all, usually after class - Dan. Are you working tonight? On his tongue it sounded like a softball ditched at his face. Dan. But it was still a nickname. Herbert. Herb. Herbie…
Dan was pulled out of his insomniac daze by the oddly specific sound of cheap Oxfords tripping on a sports bag outside his room, and Herbert’s forceful, Damn it! Daniel! hissed in rage under his breath. For Dan’s subconscious had left his kitbag abandoned outside his room in the corridor, not on purpose, but perhaps...
He realized, from its direction, that Herbert - no, that sounded so wrong - had come in the front door but managed to close it so gently behind him that Dan hadn’t heard it. He did however hear Herbert - Herb - West shake the bag off his leg, step over it and retreat down the corridor to the kitchen, and remained staring out the window for a moment, considering his next move.
Herbie - West - was out terribly late, come to think of it. He’d left the light on in his room which had lead Dan to think he’d been home the whole time but now he knew for a fact he hadn’t been. Perhaps he hadn’t been home at all, snuck out while Dan was with Meg and really, Dan couldn’t blame him - he was conscious to the fact that they could get a bit, ha ha, say, boisterous in their lovemaking and the mattress was pretty cheap and creaky so, well, fair enough.
But 3 AM was pushing it, don’t you think?
Dan stood, ears perked, listening for Rufus doing his usual sprint away from Herbert’s general existence or for his housemate’s movements, and sure enough, he heard the refrigerator seal pop from the kitchen, and made the decision to ambush West and attempt overtures of friendship, as manufactured as the gesture might be.
He pulled on a singlet to lend his night shorts a bit of decency, and - taking care to move with a catlike quiet Rufus had never really mastered - let himself out of his room and padded barefoot, silently, down the corridor. The fridge door had closed, there was a sound of a glass on the countertop. Fridge opened and closed again. Dan looked around the doorframe into the gloomy kitchen, hiding his presence for the most part, and West was standing in the dark, faced away from him, staring out the kitchen window with a glass of milk in one hand, a screwdriver in the other. The moonlight lit up his glasses like television sets, his collared shirt rolled up to his elbows gleaming white, his jacket abandoned on the kitchen benchtop along with his satchel, bulging with something forced inside.
Dan reached for the lightswitch, stepped into the doorway, and foolishly decided to make a joke.
“Caught ya,” he said as he snapped on the light, and Herbert jumped in sheer terror like a halloween cat, nearly dropping the screwdriver as he turned around so that it clattered against the kitchen cabinet as it slipped in his fingers, but with the quickness of - yes, thought Dan, of a stoat, he was very stoat-like, caught it again and held it tight in his fist as he flattened against the bench, the glass held defensively close to his chest.
“Caught me?” he gulped, giving an erratic, impulsive, fluttering blink, and Dan just looked at him and then pulled his best welcoming smile, resting his hand on the doorframe.
“You eat and drink, just like the rest of us.” He indicated to the glass in Herbert’s hand and the young man looked down at it, plumping his chin as the rest of his body stood completely immobile, clutching the screwdriver as if he’d been ready to jam it into Dan’s jugular.
“Oh, yes.” Herbert gave a weird, light headed giggle, his grip relaxing on the screwdriver. “Yes. Err, I, too, am a, uh, mere mortal.”
“Yeah,” laughed Dan, and crossed to the refrigerator. Maybe Herbert - yes, it was starting to grow on him - had the right idea and a glass of milk would help him sleep. “A screwdriver, Herbie? You’re up late, huh?”
“Yes,” said Herbert, nervously raising the glass to sip. "Just got in. I have to... fix... something. The catch on my window." Dan noticed he had been caught so by surprise that he had a milk lip, and thought it quite endearing, in that goofy, nerd thing Herbert - Herbie - Herb? - had going for him. If he was only slightly less socially awkward and maybe less short, girls would have fallen over themselves for him, he thought.
“You have a girlfriend?” he asked, pulling out the carton, and shut the fridge lazily. Herbert stared at him as if he’d suggested he swallowed live frogs for cash.
“No,” said Herbert after far too long and with far too much force, his eyes wide, one eyebrow curved down in confusion, and then the screwdriver dropped out of his hand with a clatter onto the benchtop. He batted blindly for it, not taking his eyes off Dan, but ultimately abandoned it and wiped his lip with the back of his hand instead. He swallowed, tried, “Too busy,” as an explanation, and Dan raised his eyebrows at him.
“Oh, down at the tav then?” he said with a grin, raising the milk carton to Herbert in a gesture of mateship. That would explain the suit and tie, at least.
“N-no.” Again, too much force, his gaze darting about from Dan to his bag. “Uhh, homework. S-study. Study. Yes.” Women must have been petrified of him. Meg certainly was. But Dan had known other men as awkward - admittedly not so intense as Herbert, but nonetheless other men as awkward, and honestly they weren’t all bad and often the most genuine types around. A girl could count herself lucky to have such a driven and principled man as Herbert by her side, especially one who wore his emotions so profoundly on his form. Dan even caught the guy recoil with a snarl of visceral disgust as he watched Dan take a swig straight from the carton, and thought that for Herbert, definitely, emotions were the topmost level of cognitive functioning, even if they weren’t the ones he might expect in context. Though he had expected that one. In fact, he’d done it on purpose.
“Hill’s making you stay late, then?” offered Dan as an excuse, a way out, and Herbert stared at him, then looked at his overstuffed bag, then looked at Dan again, putting aside the glass of milk (rendered undrinkable by certain facts coming to light, Dan, you monster) on the bench behind him without taking his eyes off his housemate.
“Err, Halsey, actually,” he said, and then smiled weirdly, machinated, and said sweetly, “Your friend.”
“Ah, damn.” Dan couldn’t say he was surprised. Herbert had been a real prick in class so far. “You, uh, bringing your work home?” he asked, gesturing to the overstuffed bag, and as he took an idle step towards it so Herbert snagged it with a finger and dragged it over the counter toward himself and out of Dan’s reach.
“Nn-o. Yes, I mean. Yes. I, uh, the lab loaned some equipment for my… my work,” explained Herbert, pulling the satchel behind him, “In the cellar. You know.”
“Oh, right. They, uh… must have a lot of faith in you.”
Hebert nodded aggressively in response, lowering his head, whispered, “Yeah,” under his breath and then reinforced it with a glance up at Dan. “Yeah. I guess so.” A strained smile split his face, and Dan brushed any misgivings he had off of his subconscious.
“Well, I’m going back to bed. I’ll catch you tomorrow, Herbie,” he said as he returned the carton to the fridge door, but paused as he tried out the name, looking up for Herbert’s reaction. The guy looked disconnected, his head slightly bowed, but his eyes came up with the pet name. “Is it okay if I call you that? I mean,” - he gestured to himself - “Like, Dan, or…”
Herbert raised his head and stared at him.
“Herbert? Herb? What’s best?” Dan closed the refrigerator door and smiled at the other man, who seemed to swallow an overwhelming feeling like, ha, perhaps a live frog.
“Call me whatever,” he said with a croak and a broken smile, and Dan slapped him on the shoulder although with far more gentleness than he would have used with his own friends. Herbert trembled under his hand, looking up at him and still grinning like a war victim.
“Okay. Herb.” Dan released the man and started away, even indicating to the light as he reached the doorway - “I’ll…?” - and Herbert made a vague cutting gesture in the air as he moved to the sink with his milk to pour it out, “It’s - fine. Okay, yes. Please.” And Dan turned off the light on him, as he’d found him, but hesitated in the door as Herbert emptied the milk out and washed the glass under the faucet with a lip curl, a revolted figure in the dark.
“One more thing, Herbie?” he hazarded, watching him from the door, and Herbert turned the tap off abruptly and looked up over his shoulder, saying only after too long, “Yes, Dan?”
“You haven’t seen Rufus around, have you?” Herbert stared, and so Dan tried instead, “You know, the cat? Randy little black thing?”
Herbert thought about it, standing hunched in the moonlight, his eyes and glasses gleaming, and then said with entirely too much certitude, “No.”
“Huh, funny. I haven’t seen him. Probably just out chasing tail, the mangy bastard.” Dan brushed it off again, giving the doorframe a dismissive slap for Herbert’s benefit. He thought he heard the guy say, should've got it neutered, under his breath, but couldn’t be sure as Herbert turned away, placing the glass aside on the drying rack with a clunk.
“Goodnight, Dan,” he said, staring at the wall, and Dan nodded defeated, dismissed, and drew away from the door.
“Yeah. Goodnight, Herbie.”
And two days later, the cat was dead.